The Kennedy Center

Three Meditations from MASS

About the Work

Image for Leonard Bernstein Composer: Leonard Bernstein


A welcome, reassuring presence in the Kennedy White House, Bernstein was initially asked by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (she had remarried in 1968) to serve as an administrator of the new center being planned in her slain husband’s memory, recalls Jamie Bernstein. "He was good at a lot of things, but that would not have suited my father at all," she wryly notes. "But he couldn’t say no to Jackie! So my mom [née Felicia Cohn Montealegre, a Chilean actress born in Costa Rica] called her back and suggested that a better idea would be to have him compose the Kennedy Center’s inaugural piece. And that’s how he came to write MASS."

Bernstein chose the structure of the Roman Catholic Mass as the basis to create the innovative music-theater work MASS, juxtaposing and interrogating the ancient Latin liturgy with new numbers in English (setting fresh texts by the composer and Stephen Schwartz). "He was interested in initiating this conversation about what faith means," explains Jamie Bernstein. "This is something you can track through so much of his music: this wrestling with his Creator and asking challenging questions. He used the liturgy of the Mass as a jumping-off point to explore the upheavals and world wars and cultural changes he had observed through the 20th century. It was also a nod to the Catholic tradition my mother and Jackie had grown up in."
 
Composed under tremendous last-minute stress to be ready in time for the Kennedy Center opening in 1971, the richly eclectic MASS arguably summed up Bernstein’s preoccupations as an artist, and its premiere on that occasion was of enormous significance for his sense of cultural mission.
 
Bernstein subsequently prepared arrangements for cello and piano of the meditations that function as orchestral interludes in MASS, as well as a full orchestral version to be performed as an independent suite, with a prominent solo role for cello. The NSO, led by Bernstein, gave the latter its premiere at the Kennedy Center in 1977, with Rostropovich in the role that tonight is taken by Yo-Yo Ma.
 
The First Meditation, slow and inward, is taken from the instrumental interlude between the Confession and the Gloria. The Second alludes to the quasi-"atonal" passage in the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (just before the chorus erupts with a reassuring return to A major on "Brüder!"). Bernstein uses this as a source for a set of four variations. For the Third Variation, he draws on different sections of MASS.
 
The "broad-bandedness" of Bernstein’s genius, to continue with Jamie Bernstein’s apt phrase, extends to his approach to the lyric stage and his writing for the voice. On one level, Candide incorporates the composer’s all-embracing love for the worlds of opera, operetta, and Broadway musical. Anticipating trends that would come to the fore in the 21st century, Bernstein pioneered the genre-defying mindset that is widely accepted and even expected today, and he continually sought new ways to draw on the vitality of the vernacular. But there’s a unifying idea in the selections we hear sung by Cynthia Erivo: Bernstein’s undying love of the human voice and its limitless expressive potential.